The food is just the start of Parts Unknown. Host and chef Anthony Bourdain, who passed away in 2018, was obviously obsessed by all kinds of food; across 12 seasons of this series it’s hard to come up with a meal he didn’t try. But for him, food was a great reason to travel, and travel was a great way to meet people. We’re used to documentary hosts being informative and engaged, but throughout Parts Unknown Bourdain is always alive to what’s going on around him. He’s on a journey and he wants us there with him – even if that journey involves drunkenly getting a tattoo on the streets of Thailand.
As the title suggests, you never quite know what you’re going to get with an episode of Parts Unknown. Sometimes the draw is a famous guest star; Bourdain hung out with Bill Murray in Charleston, visited Iggy Pop in Miami and tried noodles in Vietnam with Barack Obama. Sometimes a visit to a region became an excuse for a cinematic homage, inspired by directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Pier Pasolini. And sometimes he’s waxing lyrical about the joys of fast food – so long as it’s good.
He could do a deep-dive into a region famous for its food, looking up close at the farming practices; he could also go for a meal at a US waffle house and find inspiration in a stack of pancakes. In one episode he visits Lyon, the epicentre of French haute cuisine, and spends most of his time just plain losing it over getting to hang out with some of the top chefs in the world. He’s a smart and often funny guide to the world, a friend who wants to share his passion with you.
It’s all but impossible to nail down the specifics about what makes Parts Unknown work so well, because within a basic – but extremely well-polished – foodie travel format Bourdain constantly finds new angles to explore. It’s his hunger for experience that makes the show work, even when it shouldn’t, and makes it shine when everything comes together to create a classic moment.
The most obvious stand-outs are the episodes where Bourdain visits somewhere rarely visited by westerners and through his clear-eyed interest in the locals’ lives proceeds to demolish our preconceptions. In the very first episode of Parts Unknown he visits Myanmar, signalling that whatever this series might have to say about food and travel, it was just as interested in exploring the essential humanity that unites us.
Often Bourdain puts his brash, all-American persona in situations designed to show the limits of that way of seeing the world, visiting places like Cuba (at a time when Obama had only just normalised relations with the USA) and Iran (where the assumed hostility towards Americans was powerfully subverted – even if the journalists he ate with there were later arrested). It’s not a series about simply playing tourist in other people’s misery; these episodes work because he’s open to how others live their lives.
Parts Unknown is never content to stay on the surface. When Bourdain visits Laos, we are looking at the stunning countryside while his voice-over goes into ruthless detail about the horrors inflicted on the country by the USA as collateral damage in the Vietnam War. When he visits Houston, he’s on a mission to go beyond Texas’ redneck stereotypes; he starts out with a Bollywood dance number at a local grocers’ and ends up at the Houston Indian Cricket Club.
Going off the beaten track to explore the unseen corners of the world’s foodie culture often means flying in and out of countries where the locals are trapped in crushing poverty. Bourdain isn’t afraid to turn the spotlight on exactly what he’s doing there and acknowledge his privilege. It’s not all picture-postcard views and fantastic food; engaging with a culture means being honest about who you are and why you’re there. That extends to his own past; in a season 4 episode he revisits his old haunts in Massachusetts, and what starts out as a fun look at his rough and tumble past takes a hard swerve when he explores the state’s crushing opioid problem and his own past with drugs.
Here Bourdain isn’t interested in tourist-trap fakery. Notoriously he all but trashed an episode in Sicily when he found out a local fixer was setting up a shot by dumping dead octopus in the ocean for him to “catch”. There are plenty of episodes where he goes out of his way to take in the weird and wonderful side of local cuisine (blood soup, anyone?), but just as many where the focus is finding out what a city or region is really like beyond the clichés.
At the heart of it all, even more than the food and the award-winning visuals, is Bourdain himself. Some of the best episodes are those where he’s just hanging out with his buddies (or torturing them with extreme food). Sometimes he’s annoyed, or horrified, but mostly he openly embraces the food before him, and the people around him, and the society they’ve made.
This series is a feast – 12 seasons isn’t nearly enough.
See Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown from 4 September to 13 February on SBS Food Channel 33, with double episodes Saturdays and Sundays at 9.30pm. The series is also streaming at SBS On Demand.
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